Child’s Play (2019)

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Leaving the dispatch pile and fresh out of new packaging, is ‘Child’s Play’, a reboot to the original from over 30 years ago. The day and age we are now in does mean there are changes for the killer doll but do the films’ upgrades flourish or malfunction?

Single mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza) finds it tough working and bringing up her teenage son Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who isn’t coping with their recent move well. In the lead up to his birthday, Karen gives Andy a returned Buddi toy; a doll equipped with a multitude of home and play features, but this specific model fosters a worrying connection to his owner and soon his system is replaced with a thirst for murder.

No longer part of the cult franchise begun in 1988, this redo has the red haired Chucky no longer possessed by a serial killer which is a shame and it goes some way in making the film feel like a ridiculous ‘Black Mirror’ episode. The screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith was clearly angling for a link to the current climate of new-fangled gadgets people are so accustomed to and along the way there are bumpy patches in the tone, either veering from dumb comedic aspects to more stalk-filled nightmare visions that wouldn’t be amiss in ‘Annabelle’. 

However, this is not a defect movie, on the most part the silly humour is wired finely to the mainframe alongside bloody horror coding and chips of tension. At times, the deaths caused by a faulty Buddi are reminiscent of the ‘Final Destination’ films, the fairly outlandish and gory kills racking up and providing 50/50 hilarity and squeamish fright. It goes without saying that this film won’t be for everyone but if you want to view something with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and you enjoy madcap terror, then you cannot do wrong by watching ‘Child’s Play’.

Sure the plot is predictable from beat to beat but there is a nostalgic atmosphere throughout; the growth of a lonely child rising with new friends helps make this update on a late 80’s flick work well. Smoke, blue tinged back-lit sets and a playful score make this movie feel like it’s from the past in the best possible way, which is all the more surprising considering how much of a part technology has to play through the narrative.

There are a couple of great scenes gift-wrapped with tension and one driverless joyride will drive you to the brink of unease, a point where you’ll almost finish rooting for the sadistic toy and stop finding him oddly adorable. This weird response is down to the fun puppetry on display but also thanks to the wonder of Mark Hamill who provides a sharp knifes edge of murderous intent with soft pricks of amusement and unsettling cutesy vocals. Bateman is a delightful modern spin on the typical 80’s kid, he even looks the part in his red ‘E.T’ Elliott inspired top whilst Plaza impresses by stepping away from her trademark deadpan persona and playing a concerned mother with flexes of sarcasm.

Chucky is spiced up with a powerful checklist of AI infused aspects and his serious attachment problem make for a gleeful, enjoyable horror romp. It may not be the golden item to recommend at a Black Friday sale but it’s great, great fun.

7/10

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Booksmart (2019)

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Graduating from actor to director, with her first time debut feature is Olivia Wilde, for a joyful and transcendent entry to the coming-of-age genre. The combined efforts of Wilde, a unit of four superb writers and the leading ladies make for a feel good film with great diversity and some originality.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are extremely intelligent seniors in high school and seem to have their whole adult lives mapped out. After they realise that their sole focus on studies might have been for nought, they decide to finally mix play with work at the last hurdle as they embark on a route to an end of year house party.

Olivia Wilde steps up to the plate and behind the camera with effortless ease, in such a way you’d believe she’d made multiple movies beforehand. The knack in which she creates such a comfortable atmosphere throughout the film and ensures the depth of the central females comes to the fore, is exquisite quality control. The narrative may tread familiar beats to other coming-of-age features but Wilde directs in a way that breaths new life into the world.

Unlike a lot of American comedies, which try too hard to cram in pop-culture references and lose themselves in smutty humour, ‘Booksmart’ banks on the friendship between the girls and is that ever a successful bet because the two leads are a sensation. Dever and Feldstein break the scales of chemistry and through hyped up facial expressions and wonderful timing they fill the film with perfect amounts of nighttime revelry, self-learning and awkwardness.

It is not just the gals who triumph, as this is a film which pools together an excellent array of electrically charged zany folk. The background cast are interesting to watch, funny and play a suitable part in the antics of Molly and Amy’s night. The diverse range of characters make you truly feel as if you’re immersed in a world of high school cliques.

A lit soundtrack punctuates the teen angst and laughter with a fire punch of soul-happy energy. The lighting and neon lights of their house party hopping gives ‘Booksmart’ a starry wash of shiny exploration which works in their actual physical journey but their own inner understanding of themselves, each other and the students around them. This is no more felt than in a third act which sees the hopeful party pair reach dramatic levels.

Granted, there are some predictable moments and not every joke lands but these are minuscule blips in an otherwise note-perfect comedy. ‘Booksmart’ is a breath of fresh air with Olivia Wilde, Feldstein, Dever and the writers doing wonderful things to have you instantly feeling in safe hands to sit back and wallow in the non-stop delight of their work.

8/10

Welcome to Marwen (2019)

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Inspired from a 2010 documentary, this plasticky picture has a great visual flair but feels as loosely coherent as one of the figures’ crooked joints.

Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a great illustrator but after a vicious hate crime, he’s lost his skill of drawing and his memory before being beaten to an inch of his life. In trying to combat his new social flaws and trauma, Mark has crafted a model village inhabited by gun-toting women and a brave WW2 pilot based on the likeness of Mark himself.

From ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ to ‘Polar Express’, director Robert Zemeckis has been behind a selection of iconic family films and this film seems to try going down that route but comes across many stumbling blocks, at least the animations aren’t as dead eyed as the festive affair of Hanks and co. The film is somewhat creepy and trying and it grates to new levels when Zemeckis tosses in movie echoes, seen in the ‘Forrest Gump’-inspired poster and a DeLorean style machine with subsequent flames, these aren’t grin worthy call backs but rather painful, self-congratulatory references.

‘Welcome to Marwen’ can never really shake the feeling that it doesn’t which lane to stay in, it’s a tonal mess; one with an alarming mixture of bumpy Nazi drama, witchy screwiness, hobbling melodrama and unusual narrative developments which could have been emotional but just take you right out of any wish of immersion. Also, the plot seems to be aspiring to be this progressive product but more often than not it tests the patience and Mark’s female-centred dream world and his interactions with neighbour Nicol (Leslie Mann) are less movingly sad but resoundingly awkward.

There are some interesting moments; the film possesses a nice shiny plastic sheen and the majority of the visuals are excellently mastered, with this comes a great level of awesome transitions between doll and human world with the town of Marwen being a lovingly detailed environment to be a part of. The film is sometimes quirky and oddball in a good way but more often, in a manner that’s all over the place with plot points to make you roll your eyes and a heavy coating of cringey dialogue lessening the engaging goal of the story.

Carell is alright to watch in this, he gets the balance between stutteringly awkward Mark and the kindness, artistic simplicity of the man. Though moments of strain and anguish where the actor screams, you can’t help but laugh as you’re reminded of a shouting Brick Tamland in the ‘Anchorman’ movies. The females of the ensemble are all well good, Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monae, Mann and Eiza Gonzalez are caring characters but they never cross over the line to become interesting, they’re simply there to serve Mark’s interests and it feels too easy that they like and understand all of his Marwenian choices.

This is a strange bag, a Zemeckis movie with his effect of heavy-handed attempts of charm backfiring and getting annoyingly lost in a haze of good visuals and irritatingly ineffective sentimental fodder. This is not a doll Al would want to and box and ship to Tokyo.

5/10

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

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The ‘Millennium’ series of books by author Stieg Larsson was first brought to life on the big screen in Swedish drama/thriller ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ with Noomi Rapace playing the lead in a trilogy, later the first story was remade by David Fincher and that’s where it ended…until now. Acting as a kind of reboot and telling a new story featuring Larsson’s characters, would this film warrant a fresh take?

Righter of wrongs Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is a top class hacker. She’s called to help Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) who wants his nuclear based program moved out of the reach of potential danger. None more so than the Spiders who track Balder to grab his FireFall program for world destroying gain. Salander has more to face when she realises the centre of the Spider’s web is controlled by someone she knows.

Fede Alvarez has a small but superb track record with ‘Don’t Breathe’ and the remake of ‘The Evil Dead’ under his belt so you’d think he’d be a dab hand at kicking life back into the American re-telling of the Lisbeth saga. In a way he is, he ensures the film features a tingling amount of action but in terms of the intoxicating mystery and complex darkness it leaves a lot to be desired.

This feature comes across like a slick espionage action/thriller when it should be more focused and driven by the complicated, rebellious profile of its central character. It doesn’t help that even the opening credits are like a wannabe James Bond sequence. On top of this, throughout the narrative there are number of plot conveniences which make you roll your eyes and a last act sequence is almost laughable in how 007-like the heroine is helped along.

Honestly, the film isn’t awful, there are some great visuals and gripping moments but it would have been a darn sight better if the promotional side didn’t reveal so much through their trailers. The fact they included a substantial spoiler and chunk of a final confrontation in their first trailer is ridiculous and inexcusable and goes a long way in terms of trailer content for a lot of films these days. If you haven’t seen anything about this film then you’re in luck because the story will probably be more engaging when you don’t know exactly how everything will play out.

Claire Foy with her multiple piercings, ruffled black hair and leather trousers is a world away from her regal perfection as the Queen in ‘The Crown’, but she’s just as brilliant here. She knocks back any critics who’d deem her the wrong choice for Lisbeth as she embodies the grungy hacker with grit. Sure, her accent does slip into sounding like Elizabeth II with a Swedish lilt from time to time but aside from this Foy is a cool positive for the film.

‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ is a reasonably entertaining film but nowhere near as dark and riveting as the 2009 original. Everything is just polished too much that it takes away from what Lisbeth Salander represents.

5.5/10

Wildlife (2018)

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‘Wildlife’ marks the directorial debut for actor Paul Dano and what an assured, quality debut it is. Dano and his partner; fellow actor and screenwriter Zoe Kazan, have joined as a force of talent to script this film, which delves into a family through beautiful crisis.

In Montana of 1960, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has to find a new job and gets one working away from home, to control the fires in some mountains. Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) finds work of her own and it’s during this time when their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) has to become the man of the house and witness a shift in his parent’s relationship.

Paul Dano had stated that he always knew he wanted to make films about families and this is a look at one that disintegrates whilst you helplessly watch. Based on a 1990 novel of the same name, his screenplay was looked over by ‘Ruby Sparks’ writer and playwright Zoe Kazan who then helped as joint screenwriter and, together the pair have really nailed down on the personal, unflinching state of separation, explored through the 14 year old eyes of Joe, yet blisteringly sold by Mulligan’s performance.

It isn’t long until the strains of Jerry and Jeannette’s marriage take hold and once this happens the cracks can do little but get larger and larger. Through this slow-motion descent, Carey Mulligan trembles, spills tears and explodes with her affecting portrayal of a mother always asking what her son thinks and slowly taking her own route at whatever cost. She provides a fantastically haunting, mesmerising performance.

The cinematography from Diego Garcia is similarly mesmerising in a haunted, stunning way. Just from the opening shot, which sets the scene for it being a movie about house and home and the dysfunction that can happen within. Then you see the lovely bliss of this town and its peaked background reflecting the story of their apparently blissful marriage clouding over like the fire and smoke which is raging close by.

Dano and Kazan have ensured there’s a quiet burning which runs through the narrative, carrying a simmer of unease. You never truly know if something will boil over and on the occasion it might, the atmosphere slams with such a ferocity of family heartbreak, none more powerful than the silent and final image of this film. Paul Dano himself has seamlessly carried his remarkable magnetic talent from in front of the camera and neatly placed that skill behind it, ensuring there’s no need for showy tension to make a weighty drama and that’s what makes this film all the more important and brilliant.

‘Wildlife‘ is a carefully written work of art with its power buried from the inside out. As it slowly leaks out, the audience are in for a film that feels like theatre, this scenario of a family breakdown gorgeously acted by Mulligan and Gyllenhaal and wonderfully sold from Oxenbould’s Joe, as he and we too, can’t help but face this happen.

8/10

 

Juliet, Naked (2018)

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‘Juliet, Naked’ premiered in January this year at the Sundance Film Festival and it couldn’t be more of a Sundance flick; the charming aspects and the unlikely romance are right in the wheelhouse of indie darlings and on the most part, this Jesse Peretz feature works thanks to the effortless matching of its lead actors.

Annie Platt (Rose Byrne) is stuck in a seaside town thanks to boyfriend Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd), some of her resentment is due to her job but some boils down to Duncan’s love of a rock star named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), whose music Annie finds intolerable. One day she receives an email from the mysterious musician himself and they begin a 100/1 relationship.

Throughout this darling song of a movie there are a rare couple of comedic moments and though it’s not as outright funny as certain scenes had room to be, what works much better are the dramatic notes that are lyrically added to the appealing narrative. This is a film, almost like a melodic tale of love and regrets, parenting and loneliness and these themes are handled in a great heart-felt manner.

When you have source material from Nick Hornby; novelist of High Fidelity and About a Boy and screenwriter of ‘Brooklyn’ then you know to expect a romantic tale with plenty to say and thematic weight to keep the characters going to their end goals. This adaptation from the 2009 book of the same name works in the sense that you feel a faint smile on your face appear as you watch the relationship of Tucker and Annie grow. The warming sensation of a feel-good film can’t be beaten.

Here is perhaps where I am being critically unfair but the similarly driven ‘Hearts Beat Loud’, also premiering at the same Sundance, managed to capture a great mix of light comedy, fantastic songs, romance and family emotion whereas this more recent release doesn’t quite. There’s something not entirely perfect about this film which I felt the Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons music based movie reached closer to.

Rose Byrne is utterly sensational as Annie; the emotive range is great and she really makes us like her character. She lovingly handles every beat of the journey Annie goes on and the way she performs the disappointments of her life and love for 15 years are really believable. Ethan Hawke as this apparently seminal music star, gives grit and reflective thought to a man clearly unused to the extended family he has and the role as a father he’s meant to live up to. The moments between him and Byrne, whether through email voice-over or in person are touching and yes that word again, charming.

So whilst ‘Juliet, Naked’ might not be as endearing as other rom-coms, there’s a strong character duo to watch and the bittersweet indie aspect of their connection more than make up for the likelihood of its forgettable nature.

6.5/10

A Star is Born (2018)

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From comedy star in ‘The Hangover’ to more dramatic turns in films like ‘American Sniper’, Bradley Cooper has certainly been down many avenues and now he throws his stetson behind the camera for his directorial debut; a musical romance and fourth remake of the ‘A Star is Born’ brand.

Hugely famous country star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) seriously struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. On a desperate trawl to find a bar, Maine staggers into one where waitress by day-singer by night Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing. He quickly falls for her looks and talent and they begin a whirlwind relationship that sees Ally become a singer/songwriter idol.

In the 1950’s Judy Garland headlined the first remake and the 70’s saw Barbra Streisand take the lead in a rock and roll setting, one Bollywood film later and now it’s mega popstar Lady Gaga’s turn to take the cinematic stage. There’s no doubt that she’ll be up for an Oscar nomination because her performance is sensational and she makes the film what it is. The road to success with tricky obstacles and media manipulation is ripe for the times currently in Hollywood and the music perfectly encapsulates Ally and Jackson’s rocky relationship.

This movie is like a biopic of Gaga’s career, you can just see how the films’ content of moulding someone to how the management want them to be, mirrors her Poker Face days, before her songwriting and more heartfelt tunes took flight. The pop music side of Ally’s journey and the SNL showbiz aspect are necessary attributes in showing how the industry works and really demonstrates Ally as a strong individual to stick with all these changes in the dream of being recognised for her talent. She also sticks with Maine because he saw that spark within her, their relationship may be odd and harbour some cheesy moments but it feels real and the pair work beautifully together.

At a certain point it does feel like the film stretches ever so slightly and you could almost check out of the plot but thanks to the music you get drawn back in. Also, there is a very predictable narrative to follow but there’s some stunning cinematography from Matthew Libatique which goes from a pristine bathroom to a gorgeously crimson tinged drag club and the films final shot rests on a powerful, stunning image and though it is silent it sings a thousand words. On top of the great DoP work, the musical numbers themselves are toe-tappingly heartfelt and ‘Shallow’; a song penned by Gaga and Mark Ronson is gunning for an Oscar nom as well and rightly so because it screams with drama.

Cooper, with his flushed red cheeks and slurring Western drawl embodies the stereotypical drunken cowboy singer but softens this rough edges with a clear love for his Ally rose. Gaga is incredible throughout, her voice is a God given gift that fills the heart and the speakers with power. It isn’t just her singing talents that sell the film, she makes Ally a fully rounded character and you truly buy into her rise to stardom with a difficult romance aiding the way.

‘A Star is Born’ is a country and western musical for modern times and like TV show ‘Nashville’, it hits with lyrical gems and dramatic characters to soar to the top of the charts.

7/10